2014: Wow! What a start

Stanislas Wawrinka’s triumph in Chennai was a win-win for the organisers as well as himself. It was the sort of assurance that the tournament and its fans needed, of the top-seed standing tall amid the ruins accentuated by many a player withdrawal.

Stanislas Wawrinka won the first of his two Aircel Chennai Open titles in 2014 and is hoping to make it a hat-trick this year.   -  R Ragu

In recent times, much has been said, discussed and written about the upper echelons of men’s tennis. The chief protagonists, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray have dominated the scene so much that it’s entirely forgivable if one stumbles for answers when asked to name the supporting actors. For, the top 10 other than these four have a combined total of one Grand Slam title - Juan Martin Del Potro, 2009 U.S. Open - and just three Masters 1000 titles.

While the situation at the top has more or less been static, in fact stretching back to the last 35 majors, the development among the next rung has remained an unfinished business. All that Tomas Berdych, David Ferrer, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Richard Gasquet et al, who were once expected to cause earthquakes by repeatedly challenging their superiors, have done is to cause mild tremors and breed a false sense of hope.

But hope, as they say, is eternal and this is what sustains sport when monotony kicks in. It is this very optimism that has kept up the spectator interest in the Aircel Chennai Open for the past three years in spite of its diminishing star appeal (Chennai had three of the top 20 competing in 2014, while Doha had five - all from the top 10 - and Brisbane four).

Coming as it does at the start of the season, there is always a desire for new plots to emerge signifying a new dawn that will lead us into the year. In 2012, it saw a young Milos Raonic, after being crowned the ATP Newcomer of the Year, overcoming the odds to win the tournament. In 2013, Berdych was the top-seed and was touted as the man most expected from the next generation to lead the charge. A rejuvenated Janko Tipsarevic, fresh from his maiden appearance at the elite ATP World Tour Finals, however won the title and he too promised much.

But Tipsarevic has fizzled out since then and Berdych ended the year without a single title. Raonic has taken two full years to realise his potential by breaking into the top 10 though one would term it a great achievement going by the current standards.

In 2014, the competition was back again with its latest offering being yet another player waiting for his rough edges to be chiselled out for him to be made into the next big thing — Stanislas Wawrinka. That he won the title as the top-seed in Chennai does augur well.

For long Wawrinka has found it tough to sever his identity from Federer. From Federer’s wingman, the surrogate, the other Swiss, Wawrinka has been everything but himself. It also doesn’t help in attracting eyeballs when your compatriot is dubbed the ‘greatest ever’ and his tennis ‘a religious experience’.

But 2013 was a watershed year for the Swiss. After having started at No. 17, the 28-year-old reached a career high No. 8. Towards the fag end of the year, he almost upstaged Federer in the rankings; a sign of him coming into his own.

Wawrinka’s signature shot has always been his single-handed backhand, which enamours aficionados. But through the week, it was the other facets of his game which made people sit up and take notice. His vastly improved serve - a peculiar one which has almost no leg movement - and a lethal forehand were both on display as he demolished a field already depleted by No. 15 Mikhail Youzhny’s and No. 16 Fabio Fognini’s pullouts. Defending champion Tipsarevic had withdrawn even before a ball was struck.

In a sense, Wawrinka’s triumph was a win-win for the organisers as well as himself. It was the sort of assurance that the tournament and its fans needed, of the top-seed standing tall amid the ruins accentuated by many a player withdrawal. For Wawrinka, it was as perfect a start as he could imagine.

“Victories are always special,” he said. “I am feeling very good this year. I am playing better. This is the best I have played in the last six years here. But it’s just one week. I need to push through the year. I still feel I can improve. My serve can get better, my forehand too. Top four is still too far and I have no special goals. But I’ll do my best.”

One hopes, as always, that it doesn’t turn out to be another false dawn.

(As appeared in the Sportstar on January 25, 2014)